Kern County’s 2-1-1 information and referral service received more than 1,300 calls about rental and mortgage assistance during the program’s first week of availability, indicating a strong demand for the financial aid.

In fact, so many people called in to inquire about the funds, 2-1-1’s weekly call volume increased by roughly 40 percent, according to James Burger, spokesman for Community Action Partnership of Kern, which operates the phone line.

“We would never expect, in any of our other housing contracts, to see a thousand calls in a week. That’s inordinate,” said Louis Gill, CEO of the Bakersfield Homeless Center, one of the agencies administering the program. “There have been a number of people that have been affected, first by the shutdown, and then the downturn in the economy. They are feeling pressure, and housing is a very important resource that they are entirely concerned about maintaining.”

Funded by twin $5 million CARES Act contributions from the city of Bakersfield and Kern County, the rental and mortgage assistance program provides up to $5,000 in relief to those who have lost income or incurred medical bills greater than $1,000 as a result of COVID-19. To be eligible, applicants must pay more than 30 percent of their income to housing and earn less than 80 percent of the area’s median income for each household.

Payments are made directly to landlords and some will be sent out later this week, according to Stephen Pelz, the executive director of the Housing Authority of the County of Kern, another agency administering the program for the county and the city.

“We are really grateful to see all the hard work and quick action that the providers, city and county took to address this need in our community,” Bakersfield-Kern Regional Homeless Collaboration Director Anna Laven wrote in a text to The Californian. “Prevention is the best way to address homelessness because it keeps individuals and families from living on the streets to begin with.”

Not all of Kern County’s assistance programs have gotten off to such a hot start. No one has yet come forward to take advantage of Housing for the Harvest, which also began last week. The state program provides temporary hotel accommodations for agricultural workers who have contracted COVID-19 or been exposed to someone with the virus.

CAPK is administering the program locally and just began its publicity campaign. Burger said it was just a matter of time before eligible community members become aware of it.

“We believe there are people out there who this can help, and that’s why we are very aggressively reaching out to these communities,” he said. “Once this message gets out into this community, I think it will spread very rapidly.”

Successful applicants receive a hotel room for up to 14 days, and a range of accommodations — from three meals per day to transportation, and even financial assistance. Information regarding immigration status will not be asked as part of the program.

As both programs have launched, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability is calling for more to be done to aid those who need help.

“We are concerned that these agencies that are administering these programs may be overburdened and overworked,” said Emma De La Rosa, a policy advocate for the organization. “We want to make sure that folks don’t fall through the cracks. We’re here to help alleviate that burden.”

She added that people without laptops or a phone — or the ability to speak English — could find it more difficult to receive the benefits offered by the funding.

“We’re hoping to be invited to the table and continue to have these conversations in regards to how the design of the program can allow access to everyone,” she continued.

Both CAPK and the Housing Authority welcomed Leadership Counsel’s input, and said they were all working together to reach those in need of assistance.

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